March 23, 2017

Franz, Bugs Bunny, Studio 54, and the Cosmos

The 1970s and early 1980s were a very fun soccer era: Aston Villa was actually good, the Basque region was winning La Liga, and there was a league in America trying to be the greatest league in all of the world. Also, in Germany Bayern and Borussia Mönchengladbach were the top clubs.

A German legend of the game decided to join the fun and craziness of America: Franz Beckenbauer. “The Kaiser,” in his early 30s when he moved across the Atlantic, already had a World Cup and Euro Championship with West Germany.  With Bayern Munich, he’d won four Bundesliga titles, four Pokal championships, three European Cups and  his presence in New York helped bring a certain sophistication to the  North American Soccer League.

Remember, this is a league that had Bugs Bunny on the sidelines of the New York Cosmos.

Yes, Bugs was actually the Cosmos' mascot. True story.
Yes, Bugs was actually the Cosmos’ mascot. True story.

From 1977-80, and then again in 1983 at the end of his career, Franz called New York City his home. The NASL had been around since the mid 1960s, but didn’t really pick up steam until USA Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to Brazil and brokered Pele’s transfer to the Cosmos. The military government of Brazil had declared Pele a National Treasure, a designation that prohibited the superstar from being transferred to a club outside Brazil.  It took Steve Ross, chairman of Warner Communications (now Time Warner) years to get him.  Eventually Ross sent team president Clive Toye and Nesuhi Ertegun (the co-founder of the incredibly successful Atlantic Records) to Brazil to get his man. Ross’ effort was also helped along by Kissinger, who was a well known soccer fan and Cosmos booster. Pele played for the Cosmos between 1975 and 1977. It was rumored that both George Best and Johan Cruyff were to sign with them too, but both ended up ironically with the LA Aztecs, albeit at different times. Players came to the States, like they do now, to become anonymous, and live normal lives.

In 1977, to establish global and league dominance, Warner communications increased their buying up of talent from around the world.

They brought in Brazilian National Team Captain Carlos Alberto, German Captain Franz Beckenbauer from Bayern Munich. Because the Cosmos had Warner Communications money behind them (Warner was the recording company had pretty much all of the big names at the time) the Cosmos could outbid anyone.

Real Madrid and Juventus were in for Pele, and Beckenbauer signed a two million dollar contract over four years. The Cosmos would go on to win titles in 1977, 78, and 80. Franz would leave in 1980 to play in Germany one more time to join Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan less HSV team in 1980.

Visual proof that, yes, Beckenbauer and Pele were American teammates.
Visual proof that, yes, Beckenbauer and Pele were American teammates.

The NASL started dying in the late 1970s, and lost the ABC TV Contract in 1980. Much of this was due a spending war between team owners as they paid dearly to bring in stars from Europe and South America to match the prestige of the Cosmos.  The money go-round spiraled out of control, and coupled with declining attendances, and Pele’s retirement in 1977.

Over-expansion, the lack of national advertising sponsors and impatient, financially-strapped owners also contributed heavily to the league’s demise. Most of the clubs over spent to catch up with the Cosmos, and most of these clubs didn’t have anyone who actually knew the sport. Plus most clubs were going through a carousel of managers.

The Cosmos by the start of the 1980s were going through problems too, Warner Communications was going through a hostile takeover by Rupert Murdoch (not successful), and had to sell off many divisions, like ATARI, and the Cosmos. The Cosmos were bought by club legend Giorgio Chinaglia, who didn’t have the money to keep the players. Franz would end his career back in Cosmos colors in 1983, but by that time the club was a shell of itself.

The league folded for good in 1985, when most of the clubs had gone defunct. The Cosmos tried to stay around for a bit by being a barnstorming team, but failed. They really didn’t go away, though, as former GM Pepe Pinton owned the Cosmos’ name, and everything else with it. He’d trot the name out for camps in New Jersey.

Finally, after many attempts, in 2010 the Cosmos were brought back, to the new NASL, and have been consistently successful on the pitch, if less successful in earning a big fan base.

Many former NASL players from around the world stayed in the states, and continued to help grow the league. Ron Newman, who coached many clubs in the NASL, went on to be a legend in the indoor game. Alan Hinton who played for Brian Clough, coached youth players in Washington, currently is a pundit for Seattle Sounders. Ray Hudson would go to be a coach, and is a pundit for beIn sports. Thomas Rongen would coach all over the leagues here in the States, winning titles in MLS and ASL, and star in Next Goal Wins. And Rodney Marsh would settle down to be a coach, as well as a media personality.

The documentary “Once in a Lifetime” provides a great look at the celebrity-driven, gaudy glory days of the Cosmos.

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Stephen Brandt, lives in Buffalo New York, and is an E Licensed Soccer Coach. Stephen has been writing on soccer since the start of the century, his work has been featured on Sunderland AFC's website, Liverpool's website, and SBnation. Stephen currently is a writer for World Soccer Talk. He's also been hosting Yellow Card Podcast on Blogtalk on Tuesdays 7-8 pm EST. His podcast has been listed as one of the top 50 podcasts in the country by MLSoccer.com. Follow @yellowcardSCB

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